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Literary Analysis Essay My Papas Waltz Theme

In “My Papa’s Waltz,” Roethke unites two of his more important themes—his attempt to understand his relationship with his father and his use of the dance as a metaphor for life itself.

Roethke’s father, Otto, was a person who enjoyed the outdoors and the pursuits usually associated with masculinity: sports, hunting, and fishing. Like most fathers, he wanted his son to be like him, but it was clear very early in Theodore’s life that he could not and would not follow in his father’s footsteps. For example, Theodore subscribed to a poetry journal when he was in the seventh grade. In a pattern common in many families, Otto Roethke loved his son but could not approve of his path in life; Theodore loved his father but was unable to demonstrate that love in ways that his father could understand. Worse, Otto died while Theodore was still a teenager, so the father never learned what a leading role in his chosen field the son would play—nor did Theodore have a chance during his father’s lifetime to resolve the differences between them.

Much of Roethke’s mature work embodies his attempt to sort through this relationship and, ultimately, end it, so that the poet could be free to become not merely the son of his father but himself. “The Lost Son,” which many critics regard as Roethke’s breakthrough work (in which he first asserts himself most forcefully in his own poetic manner), concerns his attempts to come to grips with the death of his father. Although the father has died, it is the son, unsure of his identity, who is lost. Ironically, in trying to become free of the memory of his judging father, Roethke discovers how much like the older man he is.

The point of connection between the two is the greenhouse and the world of plants that Roethke’s father nurtured. Here the tender side of Otto’s nature asserted itself, for it takes patience and loving care to...

(The entire section is 781 words.)

In Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s waltz” the reader finds a horrid experience, the beating of a child by his father, which is told in a way of a romantic and beautiful dance – the waltz. The feeling one get from reading this poem is that the narrator, at least at the time in which the poem is written, does not look at this experience as something bad.

He tries to beautify the experience by making it a waltz. He also, by means of images and rhythm, shows the conflict between the readers, or the way any other ‘normal’ man will look at this experience, and how he sees it, or wants it to be seen ( although he does not show his father as completely innocent). It can also be looked upon as the Petty Herst syndrome – meaning having a ‘reality’ so intense and strong that one feels incapable of any other ‘reality’, fearing it can and will be worse.

The poem is built of four stanzas (quatrain), each consisting of four lines. The rhyme scheme is, in the first stanza – abab, in the second – cdcd, in the third – efef, and in the fourth – ghgh. The meter is trecet iamb (stressed unstressed – three times per line).

The central image in the poem is the metaphor in which the beatings are described as a waltz. The poet is led around the house, dancing – not beaten around. Which is also brought throu by the meter – trecet iamb – the beat of the waltz, thus the main image is shown through the meter as well, giving the reader more of the feeling of a dance in contrast to the ‘secondery images’ which are more associated with the rough experience of a beating. Given such parameters the poet installs some sort of relaxation in the reader (maybe even in himself), in order to make the subject – the beating – more readable, and lessening the effect of the drunkenness and the beatings, making his father more human. By this dance metaphor the whole routine of the beating is messeged. The drunken father, his breath “Could make a small boy dizzy”, yet the boy hangs “on like death”. The word death is important, usualy the word death, in love poems, shows truthfullness and undesputable love, as in marriage one promises to love to death, to never leave even if what is left is just a memory – as happens in this poem. The boy will love his father to end; although, a great bitterness remains in the memory – the drunkenness, failure (“every step you missed”), and the beating deriving from these failure and drunkenness. For each failure ” My right ear scraped a buckle ” – The boy is accused for his father’s failures. Another way in which the love to the father is shown is the way in which the father is described, by which the poet shows his love to the father, and his longing to him, is by calling him “Papa” – not father. This word is used, often, to fathers which with one has a special relationship, a certain love. The title in itself is misleading, reading “My Papa’s waltz” one will expect to find a poem about a father, good and loving, dancing this gentle dance, not, in ones eye not the poet, a beating father, a monster. Together with all these is the description of the father as poor man, one to be mercied. He is, as we already seen, a failure, he is drunken, probably a lot, for his breath reeks with ” whiskey “, he is dirty – his hands ” caked hard by dirt ” and are ” battered on one knucle” , all in all a poor man that all will pity, someone who needs love.

In spite of these showings of his father as a person that he loved, and still does, the poet uses the ‘secondary images’ – the images outside the main image – to show that the brutality existed. He does not lessen the impact of these beatings or their brutality. The beatings was so hard that the “pans \ Slid from the kitchen shelf “, the beatings were hard on the poet – ” Such waltzing was not easy ” – and also made a change in the boys point of life. The poet tells that the father beats ” time on my head “, meaning the beatings made his childhood go away, time ran faster for him, beating him as his father did, as if making him mature faster than others, but he does not accuse his father of that. One accusing finger does rise, and that is toward the mother, who “Could not unfrown ” her ” countenance “, as if the poet’s mother does not react in order to maintain this or that frown that will leave her ‘undignified’, as if stopping his father from beating him is not of her duties –  putting the blame away from his father.

Another explanation, farfetched as it may sound, is that of the Petty Herst syndrome. The meaning of this syndrome is that one may enter into a state of life, a ‘reality’, that no matter how brutal or harsh it may be, once it is in his mind as an absolute reality, this reality will look as the most suitable reality, escape is not needable, and even when the person leaves this reality it will still, in retrospective, be the best situation he was ever been. It is possible that the narrator in this poem is ‘afflicted’ by this syndrome. He defends his father because to him it seems that this is the reality he should be in. He describes the beatings as a waltz because he sees it as such.

Although the poem is narrated retrospectively, from a grown up man point of view, something remains, the poet does not hate his father for the beating, on the contrary, he shows us that the love to his father is not, and never was lost. And twice during the poem – he talks about ” But I hung on ” in the first stanza, and ” Still clinging to your shirt.” in the fourth stanza, which gives the feeling that he loved and stayed with his father during his childhood, and that he does that even now when his childhood is no longer with him.

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